“Social and Physical Form: Ilyenkov on the Ideal and Marx on the Value-Form”: Andrew Chitty
E.V. Ilyenkov’s philosophy represents an extraordinarily ambitious attempt to use the idea that human social activity has determinate ‘forms’ to achieve three different goals: an account of the categories of thought, an account of our knowledge of the natural world, and an account of human consciousness. Overarching these goals, and incorporating them, is another: that of giving an account of mind based on social activity.
Ilyenkov’s conception of the ideal, or of ideality, plays a central role in this project. We could go as far as to say that for Ilyenkov ‘ideality’ is the most fundamental feature of human mindedness. By demonstrating that ideality is an objective yet non-physical feature of social activities, and of the things used and produced by social activities, Ilyenkov aims to show that an elementary human mindedness inheres in these activities and things, which makes possible the fully-fledged human mindedness that characterises individual reflective human beings.
Understanding Ilyenkov’s account of mind, therefore, depends on gaining a clear grasp of his conception of the ideal. Yet, notoriously, that conception has proved an elusive one to pin down. In this article, I shall attempt to elucidate some aspects of Ilyenkov’s conception of the ideal by taking as a cue his statement, in his article ‘The Problem of the Ideal’, that ‘the ideality of the value-form is an extremely typical and characteristic case of ideality in general’ (DI 207, CI 90-91). This suggests that Ilyenkov develops his account of the ideality of human activities and the things involved in those activities by generalising from Marx’s account of the value-form of commodities. And in fact in this article, which is his fullest exposition of the concept of the ideal, Ilyenkov – after attacking his opponents and commenting on the notion of the ideal in Plato, Kant and Hegel – presents his own
account of the ideal precisely through a discussion of Marx’s account of the value-form. My procedure here will be to comment in detail on this presentation, adopting the working assumption that in it Ilyenkov is in fact generalising from Marx’s value-form to arrive at his concept of the ideal. This will lead to some conclusions about the nature of Ilyenkov’s generalisation from Marx, and about the conception of the ideal that results from it.
1. The varieties of the value-form
Ilyenkov begins his discussion as follows:
“In his analysis of money – that familiar yet mysterious category of social phenomena –Marx formulated the following definition: ‘price or the money-form of commodities is, like their value-form in general, a form distinct from their palpable real bodily form, therefore only an ideal or represented form’. Here Marx describes as ‘ideal’ nothing more or less than the value-form of the products of labour in general”. (DI 198-9, cf. CI 85)
What exactly is the ‘value-form’ of a product, which Marx contrasts here (and elsewhere) to its bodily form? Ilyenkov proceeds to a brief summary:
“According to Marx, the ideality of the form of value consists not, of course, in the fact that this form represents a mental phenomenon existing only in the brain of the commodity-owner or theoretician, but in the fact that, here as in many other cases, the corporeal palpable form of the thing (for example, a coat) is only a form of expression of a quite different ‘thing’ (linen, as a value) with which it has nothing in common. The value of the linen is represented, expressed, ‘embodied’ in the form of the coat, and the form of the coat is the ‘ideal or represented form’ of the value of the linen”. (DI 199, CI 85)
The Marx quotation is from Capital Volume 1 (MEW 23:110, Marx 1976a:189). Unless otherwise mentioned, passages from Capital are from the fourth edition, on which MEW 23 and Marx 1976a are based. However in the passages cited in this article there are no significant differences between the second, third and fourth editions (what I call the ‘later editions’). In the present instance Ilyenkov quotes from Marx in the original German, but where he quotes in Russian Richter reproduces Marx’s original German text. In translating Marx’s German into English for this article I have used the standard translations listed in the bibliography as guides.
Ilyenkov is referring to Marx’s exposition of the form of value in chapter 1 of Capital, in which he examines the ways in which the values of commodities are expressed, that is, the ways in which a commodity can be worth something or other. If one commodity is worth a certain amount of another commodity or commodities then the commodities stand in what Marx calls a ‘value relation’, in which the value of the first is expressed in terms of a quantity of the other(s). The sentence that describes this relation is called a ‘value expression’.
in Evald Ilyenkov’s Philosophy Revisited, ed. V. Oittinen, Kikimora Publications, Helsinki, 2000, pp. 229-263
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